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The ADMM Plus - Why China Nixed Dicussion of the South China Sea

2015-03-04 09:30:28       source:NISCSS

By Mark J. Valencia

China has rejected a proposal from ASEAN countries to discuss the implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the yet to be agreed more formal Code of Conduct (COC)  at the ADMM-Plus meeting scheduled for November in Malaysia . While China’s refusal to discuss the South China Sea issues in this forum may seem a minor kerfuffel  in the larger strategic complex, it is actually the emerging tip of a political and strategic iceberg upon which the good ships Peace and Stability may founder.

Why did this happen, and why is it significant?

First some background and context.

The ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) is a politically important gathering of defence ministers from the 10 ASEAN states and eight other countries—Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States. It was created at the 2nd ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting in Singapore in 2007 as a platform for ASEAN and its eight Dialogue Partners to strengthen security and defence cooperation to further peace, stability and development in the region The ADMM-Plus has become one of the main vehicles through which ASEAN hopes to maintain its centrality in regional security. Failure to do so could seriously impede ASEAN’s progress towards becoming a meaningful Security Community, one of its cherished goals.

However, larger strategic  factors are affecting the unity of ASEAN and now the agenda of the ADMM-Plus. Fundamentally, China’s rejection of this agenda item is a reflection of conflicting national security interests between China and the United States, with ASEAN and its members caught in the middle. The United States and China are on opposite sides of a political chasm - and perhaps history. The U.S. is yesterday’s and today’s sole superpower. But its credibility, legitimacy and ability to impose its will are fast eroding. China views the US-led Western developed world with both envy and suspicion. Its suspicion inspires fear that the West wants to constrain – if not contain - China’s rapid economic progress and undermine its ‘socialist’ political system.  China also believes that the international world order—and the present regional order-- favors a system developed and sustained by the West.  Indeed, China believes the United States has been trying to unify ASEAN against it to stem China’s rightful rise and dominant role in the region.

Given the core hopes and objectives of ASEAN embodied in ADMM-Plus, China’s rejection of any discussion in this forum of perhaps the most important security issue facing the region is a slap in the face of ASEAN and an embarrassment for Malaysia as current ASEAN Chair.  While this development should not come as a complete surprise, it does reflect diplomatic miscalculations by all countries concerned—including China. Obviously the implementation of the DOC and the negotiation of a binding COC are at least temporarily ‘dead in the water’. Indeed, this ‘refusal to discuss’ is a setback for the whole South China Sea peace process as well as ASEAN’s aspirations to be central to the region’s security.

China has repeatedly stated that it views its differences with other South China Sea claimants as bilateral issues to be negotiated—as the DOC says—‘by the sovereign states directly concerned’.  China views the United States (and its ally Japan) as biased, external  interlopers who are attempting to manipulate ASEAN against it.

However,  China apparently did not make the gravity and firmness of its concerns clear enough, and the leaders of ASEAN –spurred on by the Philippines, Vietnam and –behind the scenes—the United States—overplayed their hand.

Like most countries involved in the South China Sea imbroglio, China’s maritime policies and behavior have been a mix of good, bad--and even ugly.  But some governments and their nationalistic analysts and media have gone way ‘over the top’ in their ‘blame and shame’ campaign to demonize China as an arrogant and dangerous bully. Some of their criticism is exaggerated or heavily biased; and some of it is so hypocritical as to be ludicrous. China has clearly had enough and is not about to subject itself to another round of criticism—particularly in a forum including unfriendly outside powers like the United States and Japan.

From its perspective, ASEAN claimants are guilty of all they criticize China for –and worse—stealing its resources and colluding with outside powers against it.  China knows that ASEAN and the ASEAN claimants are divided and hedging on these issues—and on the U.S.- China competition for power and influence in the region. Thus it senses that it can batten down the hatches and ride out the political storm.

Given the disunity within ASEAN on these issues, the Chinese perception of ulterior motives for the involvement of the United States, and the depth of China’s angst, cornering and publicly embarrassing China on the South China Sea issues is politically risky and could have dire consequences for the region. If lessons are not learned on all sides, this ‘refusal to discuss’ may well be a harbinger of worse to come.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China